Summary Discussion of Paragraphs 7-9 and 11-13 of Chapter 26 of the 1689 Confession.
Paragraph seven of chapter 26 highlights the independence and spiritual-giftedness of every local congregation—”To each of these churches.” Each has been given “power and authority” for executing biblically required worship and discipline. They need no interference from outside on matters of discipline, though they may request wisdom from other congregations (paragraphs 14, 15). Nor is their worship mandated from an outside source of human generation such as The Book of Common Prayer. The local congregation may carry out fully the elements of church life as required by Scripture. Every member of the body is gifted for particular functions within the body and “as each part does its work” the entire body is edified (Ephesians 4: 16).
These local congregations, when organized in a fully scriptural manner “according to the mind of Christ” will be constituted by members and officers (8). Members already have been described in paragraph 6 as “Saints by calling” who evidence their desire for holiness of life, fellowship with other believers and submission to the intent of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (described in chapters 28-30). All believers should see membership in a local body as a spiritual privilege and duty (12). Being admitted to the privileges of worship granted to the church by Christ himself, everyone who embraces membership also commits to be under the instruction, censure, and government of the church executed “according to the Rule of Christ.”
Two kinds of discipline will characterize a healthy New Testament congregation. The first is formative discipline. Each member will receive regular instruction from called and qualified teachers—normally, but not limited to, elders—in sermons preached to the whole congregation in corporate worship. In addition, special times of instruction in smaller groups may occur in ways consistent with the needs of various segments of the church’s membership “which are to be ordered according to the light of nature, and Christina prudence according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (I. 6). Formative Discipline is the most common kind employed by the church in accordance with apostolic principle. It includes prayer, worship, giving, taking the ordinances, reading the Scripture, and learning how to detect and mortify the jealous struggles of the flesh against the working of the Spirit and truth. Paul wrote frequently to give encouragement and substantial teaching in this process of formative discipline. To the Colossians, a church that he had not visited as yet, he instructed, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2: 6). As he continued, Paul wrote, making specific applications of doctrine: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3: 12, 13). At the end of the letter Paul insisted, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. And say to Archippus, ‘See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord’” (Colossians 4: 16, 17). Such kinds of insistent apostolically-generated instruction could be multiplied greatly. This instruction, the ethical and practical application of doctrinal truth, gives godly formation to the attitudes and actions of Christians. Rescued from the power of darkness, we must now be transformed by the power of the word, the renewing of the mind, in order to be able to test and prove the will of God for a life of worship and obedience. This is formative discipline.
A second type of discipline is corrective discipline. Its first manifestation deals with private offenses that might escalate into the necessity of discipline of a more public nature. The confession refers to 1 Thessalonians 5:14 and 2 Thessalonians 3: 6, 14, 15. Both sternness and gentleness befit pastoral involvement: “Warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.” These Scriptures highlight the importance of apostolic teaching in saying, “But we command you, brethren, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks not according to the tradition which he received from us.” Also, Paul reminded the church, “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed.” Both in conduct and in belief the apostolic practice and word was to govern the congregations established under apostolic missionary labors.
In cases of private offense, the rule of Matthew 18: 15-17 is to be followed. If an understanding and restoration of confidence, trust, and fellowship is achieved in the private meeting, nothing further needs to be done. If such resolution cannot be reached, it then becomes a church matter. In such a case, the person who initiated the attempt at resolution should not “disturb church order, or absent themselves from” church attendance or partaking of the ordinances. They must wait patiently on the will of Christ as executed through the “further proceeding of the church” (13). There are times when difficult circumstances in a local congregation can be aided by consultation with another congregation of like faith and order, but the final policy and action in all such cases is a matter of the authority of the local congregation itself. [Tom Hicks dealt with this in his discussion of paragraphs 14 and 15 in another issue of the Founders Journal]. Each congregation must test all counsel and advice in light of the word of God as it speaks to the particular situation under consideration.
Within the church, God has given some of whom is required the “peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power, or duty” (8). The leadership in the use of means for both formative and corrective discipline falls largely on the shoulders of those so gifted. The members of each congregation search out and call those who have been gifted as officers. The two officers of the church are bishops and deacons. These offices, “appointed by Christ,” are to execute their duties in the church, for the benefit of God’s people and the glory of God, continuing in them “to the end of the world” (8). The common suffrage in electing these officers also is extended to the practice of corrective discipline, a “punishment by the majority” (2 Corinthians 2: 6). Though elders and deacons lead, the final application of discipline is to be done “when you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus,” at which time they are to “purge the evil person from among you.” Disciplinable offenses are listed by the apostle: “anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler.” The purpose of the discipline is reclamation in light of the coming final judgment (1 Corinthians 5: 4, 5, 15). The purpose and prayer in such cases is for repentance and exuberant restoration so that the disciplined person will not be “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” The church is to “reaffirm your love for him,” “to turn to forgive and comfort” such a one (2 Corinthians 2: 6-8).
These officers are set apart by the church. While the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are given to every member, the “laying on of hands” is reserved for those biblically-mandated and qualified leaders of the congregation—“fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit.” The words bishop, elder, and shepherd all designate a single office from different perspectives of function and character. The Savoy Platform of Polity lists “Pastors, Teachers, Elders” as separate offices. The Baptists, who depended on this statement of polity for much of their wording departed from the Congregationalists at this point. The elder so qualified is “chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself” (9). This is a solemn, soul-shaping congregational responsibility and so should be accompanied “by fasting and prayer.” When elders are tested and elected, they are set apart for the service by laying on of hands. The confession references 1 Timothy 4: 14: “Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership.”
Although God may not call them as elders to exercise authority over the flock, he gives ability and unction of proclamation to others. Both Stephen and Phillip, two of the first deacons, were gifted as preachers and evangelists and God pressed them into service. The confession points to the scattering of the church after the persecution that arose over Stephen. At that time, those who were scattered were “preaching the word to no one but the Jews only.” Others went to Antioch and engaged the Hellenists “preaching the Lord Jesus.” God blessed the effort “and a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11: 19-21). Considering this phenomenon, the writers of the confession said, “Yet the work of preaching the word is not so peculiarly confined to them; but that others also gifted, and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved, and called by the Church, may and ought to perform it” (11).
Christ has provided for his churches all that is needed for their knowledge of his word and their conformity to his image. The functioning of the church in accordance with the loving regulations given in Scripture under the guidance of the officers that he has set in place will cause us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” “Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her, that he might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that he might present her to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such things but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5: 25-27).